First look: A week with macOS Sierra

macOS takes its place within Apple's connected empire

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With so much of macOS Sierra’s overall vision dependent on iCloud and so many features across all Apple’s platforms using iCloud for storage, the free 5GB of storage Apple offers iCloud users is going to be an obstacle to full realization of the company’s connected vision. How many RAW image files in Photos or from a Mac Desktop does it take to consume 5GB? Not many. In Sierra, Apple has developed a great set of tools to help optimize  and manage storage (see below), but I do think it needs to think a little more about how much storage customers will need to use all these connected solutions effectively.

My opinion: Apple should address this self-created storage bottleneck before Sierra ships in Fall. I would also like an easy way to create a direct link to an iCloud file to share that file with others, as you find in other online storage services.

Tabs support

I really like the newly expanded tab support you’ll find across most Apple and an expanding number of third party applications. We’re moving away from multiple windows toward one app window in which all your different projects can be stored. I think most of us will make more and more use of this, and Maps users (particularly) will enjoy being able to explore the town they are about to visit in one tab while checking the instructions to get there in another.

However, there is a little confusion in tabs, so:

  • For browser-like apps (like Maps) Cmd-N makes a new window and Cmd-T makes a new tab
  • For other apps (like Pages) Cmd-N makes a new window and Cmd-Option-N makes a new tab
  • Cmd-N makes a new tab when using an app in full screen.

My opinion: I use tabs a lot and welcome their extension to other apps, though many Mac users will need to mind their N’s and T’s for a while.

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Thoughts on storage

Apple appears to have had a good old think about storage:

iCloud has an optimized storage feature in which older files are automatically stored online to free up space on your local drive. My concern is what happens when a file you don’t often need is the one that suddenly becomes essential when you’re offline.

About This Mac (About This Mac>Storage) now offers storage recommendations to help maintain space on your drive. Click the Manage button and a menu appears with various recommendations to help you manage storage:

Optimized iCloud Storage saves space by keeping only recently opened photos and videos on your Mac when storage is low; iTunes movies and TV shows can be automatically removed after you watch them; trash emptied automatically and older documents stored on the Mac can be pruned.

System Information also lets you take a look at how much space your Applications, Mail and other items consume on your drive. Apple has also introduced new user controlled processes designed to help minimize your digital trash and maximize your available drive space. These include things like duplicated download prevention, alerts for used installers and automatic clean up of old cache and log files.

My opinion? Apple’s done a really good job of making it easy for all of us to take control of storage on the Mac with these tools.

Photos continue to develop

I’m still coming to terms with some of what’s on offer in Photos, and because I think that for most Mac users this is a hugely significant application containing some of their most precious digital assets, I’m going to break out a much more thorough look at Photos another day. Here are a few initial thoughts:

Apple is making a big experiment with AI in Photos. Photos now understands the people, places and things inside your images using on-device facial, object and scene recognition and location information to group images into albums.

However, the analysis can take a significant length of time so you may want to leave it to do its thing for a day or so – though once it completes you will rediscover moments you’d forgotten.

This is a powerful tool, which, by keeping your information private, is great evidence of how AI can benefit your life in a tangible way. Apple has been working with AI for some time, and is seeking out ways these technologies can be used for the benefit of users, rather than looking good in some future-focused vaporware press release.

Also read: WWDC: 12 iOS 10 features you probably didn't know about

Apple has also baked some lovely new views inside Photos. Go inside Albums>People and select a contact and you’ll see visually engaging collections, complete with the people who were there, nice visual effects (which you can turn off if you want) and location data shown on the map. These albums are really fun to explore – I actually lost a little more time than I thought just exploring my collections in Photos. You can also quickly navigate through your images with the new scrubber bar. The new Faces, Places and Albums views should help you get a lot more out of your collection, and the new Brilliance image editing tool (available as an option inside Light) sometimes even made my second-rate photography almost fit to Tweet. Finally, you get image stabilization and the ability to edit Live Photos.

photosusethis Apple

My opinion: While I really appreciate the many improvements in Photos, I do think there’s some compromise being made between Photos as an album of images and Photos as a creative tool -- though the added context makes them more exciting.

Private lives

Privacy is a core component on macOS. Take a look at the more detailed data you’ll find in the Locations menu where you can find and review all the apps enabled to use that data; Safari will only check for Apple Pay on websites if you allow it; the company’s future move to a new file system will make your data encrypted on the device by default -- these are all evidence of Apple's commitment to your private life.

Claiming it to be a security improvement, Apple has tightened up the process for installing apps from sources other than the App Store. This makes it harder — but not impossible — to install such unsigned apps. To do so you’ll need to press the Control key, select the app and then choose ‘Open’.

Picture in Picture

From the, “Why didn’t this work years ago?” department, picture-in-picture mode lets you float Web video in a window over your desktop. It works with standard HTML5 and some proprietary formats. When you play video a small icon will appear in the media playback menu, tap this and the video window pops out of the screen. This worked great with Vimeo, but Google’s only half-baked and you must double right click on a YouTube video to access this mode while we wait for Google to do something about how its proprietary controls work.

Beyond the headlines

If you believe everything you read it would be easy to think Siri, Messages and iCloud Desktop where the only improvements in the OS, but that’s not true. Kicking the system around for a few days I’ve found multiple small enhancements that I think might help get things done:

  • Calendar has become proactive and can show you events like flights or restaurant reservations found in apps and use Apple Maps to look up locations and transit directions so it can helpfully alert you when it’s time to go.
  • Apple has redesigned Notifications giving them a much cleaner appearance. Notifications Widgets now look much more like their iOS equivalents, making them clear, engaging and pleasant to use.
  • You can now rearrange Menu bar items by holding down the command key while dragging any icon you with to move (not notification scents)
  • Disk Utility has been given a bit of a face lift, but one of the key improvements is that you can once again use the utility to set up RAID drives.
  • Safari Extensions have grown their own section at the Mac App Store, and it looks like Flash may be becoming an even bigger liability with support for it disabled by default in Sierra’s Safari. No website should use it. Ever.
  • You can now switch between sound outputs using the Volume control in the menu bar.

Final thoughts

This solid upgrade puts the Mac firmly at the center of Apple’s new vision for a future model of computing in which mobile devices, Macs, wearables and televisions become complementary items across a connected ecosystem. However, with iCloud services critical to this vision, I think Apple needs to think about ensuring every user can get fully focused on the future of computing these combined solutions represent.

All in all, Apple has created the world's first connected operating system across all its platforms, one that no one else can truly claim to match. 

Who gets it?

Apple says macOS Sierra 10.12 will be compatible with the following Macs:

  • MacBook Pro (2010 and later)
  • MacBook Air (2010 and later)
  • Mac Mini (2010 and later)
  • Mac Pro (2010 and later)
  • MacBook (Late 2009 and later)
  • iMac (Late 2009 and later)

I do hope you’ve managed to get some feel for macOS 10.12 Sierra from this report. Please let me know your thoughts in comments below.

NB: Apple supplied me with a Mac running the beta for the purposes of this review.

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Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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